Thursday, November 2, 2006

Anyone for Tennyson?

By Judith

The title of this piece was the title of a show on PBS many years ago in which four actors would recite poetry. I can see you all jumping up and down now. However, if any of you remember being read to as a child, you might recall the excitement and thrill of the words on the page leaping out and nestling into your ears. The story was alive in a way that went beyond the imagination you use when you read silently.

At about the same time there was a radio show called "Reading Aloud." At a point in my life when nothing much else would pique my interest, listening to the books - entire books over the course of a few weeks - being read gave me something to look forward to. It brought a familiar comfort, like when my mother would read to my brother and me every night before we went to sleep. (Being naughty brought a punishment of no reading. Yikes!)

Poetry and prose were recited as a form of entertainment and communication back in the days before radio and television. It was not uncommon for children to memorize poems or Psalms and perform them for family gatherings. Books-on-tape aside, we've all but forgotten that our language was meant to be heard as well as seen. (Txt msg any 1?)

The trick, of course, is to say it in a way that is pleasing. That's why the program "Anyone for Tennyson?" was so good. People who made their livings interpreting writers' words out loud were the ones reciting the poetry. In Poems for Enjoyment, editor Elias Lieberman writes an introduction for each of the sections of poems he has selected. The section "The Music of Poetry: Rhythm" starts off like this: "Not all people recognize rhythm in poetry. Some are rhythm-deaf, just as other are tone-deaf. If you have ever heard a song rendered by a person who cannot carry a tune you have some idea of what any poem, no matter how good, must mean to one whose sense of rhythm is tragically paralyzed. Such persons should not attempt to read poetry aloud." (Somebody ought to tell that to Garrison Keilior.)

Two poems in this section of the book, "The Santa Fe Trail" by Vachel Lindsay and "The Conjurer" by Lew Sarett even have director's notes in the margins next to the stanzas, with comments like, "To be read or sung well-nigh in a whisper" or "To be chanted." Clearly, the poets expected their poems to be read out loud.

But today if you attend a poetry reading, you're just as likely to hear prose... broken up... in lines... that may look... like a poem. But isn't... Rhyming isn't an absolute necessity, but there is a musicality and rhythm about poetry that separates it from prose. (Although good prose can be poetic.)

My point, and I do have one, is that good poetry shouldn't be left languishing on a dusty library shelf. Wouldn't it be something if actors, or anyone with the talent for rhythm and expression, were to recite good poems in public. Wouldn't it be something to hear a Shakespeare or Browning sonnet or a lyric by Wordsworth, Tennyson, Frost or Poe come to life on the stage or the radio or the television. Wish I had that talent. I'd take it on tour.


  1. ROFL about your Keillor comment! I thought I was the ONLY one who finds his poetic reading style lacking.

    Back in the frontier days of this nation, there were traveling companies, or individuals, that would recite selections of poems, plays, even selections from the Constitution or the daily newspaper. Few people could read and/or afford the materials. They would pay the reader or pay them in kind (with dinner, supplies, lodging, etc)

    I'm not sure, today, how many people would turn out for that type of thing. Well, perhaps, more then I think since Shakespeare in the Park productions are fairly well attended.

  2. If the recitation were good enough, imagine how exciting it could be to hear the words of the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address out loud! When we visited Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago, we heard speeches by "Patrick Henry" and "Thomas Jefferson." It truly made their words come alive.

  3. As a kid, I was a total science nut. But for some reason I was a fan of the Anyone for Tennyson? TV show on PBS. I think it was so unlike anything else on the tube that it caught me off-guard. Later, I fancied myself a poet, in college, and went on to produce some magnificent fishwrap. My parents' culture consisted of prime time TV, Readers' Digest, and baseball on the radio. The Tennyson show gave me at least a glimpse into a bigger world.


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